Avoiding Catastrophe: YES WE CAN PART II Email Print

Recently I wrote a diary discussing global warming, indicating the overwhelming evidence that it is happening and suggesting that we can do something about it. Many of the comments I got on other sites were negative. The objections to my diary included a.) global warming is a scam; b.) we are not technically advanced enough to make any real changes; c.) our society won't do anything, so we have to act as individuals and forget about societal action; and, worst of all, d.) fine, you can do what you want about global warming as long as it doesn't inconvenience me.

I want to address these negative comments because, quite simply, they are all wrong and all of them interfere with our ability to mitigate global warming.

Who am I to discuss global warming? Well, my wife and I are scientists. Although I am a biologist, I keep up with the scientific literature in a variety of fields and I understand scientific thinking and the scientific process. My wife is actually an atmospheric scientist, studying climate dynamics, and works at GISS, the institute run by Jim Hansen, the man who came out on 60 minutes exposing the Bush administration's censorship of global warming science (which lead to a diary I wrote that was top of Daily Kos rec. list!). I hear from my wife aspects of the global warming debate that few outside of the field would hear. I hear what the experts are saying and how their discussions have shifted. It is also a subject I have been aware of and keeping up on for more than 25 years.

Now, to address the comments I got yesterday.


Global warming is not a new theory. It dates back to Roger Revelle in the 1960's. It reached my consciousness in the 1980's. I listened to the dire predictions scientists were making back then and I have since watched many of them come true. The increased storminess we are experiencing was predicted back then. The spread of tropical diseases into temperate zones was predicted back then. The patchiness of the temperature effects (with more record cold years as well as more record hot years and with some areas cooling while most areas warmed) was predicted back then. Many of the surprises are not good news. The rapidity of the break up of an entire Antarctic ice shelf was a huge surprise that indicates that catastrophe could happen faster and more suddenly than originally predicted. Similarly, the melting of the permafrost, which will in one shot release about 10x the annual carbon emissions put out by humans, is happening faster than expected. Most predictions made by climatologists in the 1980's are coming true and, once again, the surprises have been indications that things could be worse than we thought.

Those who claim that global warming is a scam are either ignorant of the facts, listening to the right wing media, or are actually lying blatantly as part of the right wing Denial Lobby which is paid for by the oil and coal industries and which has had a strong presence in the Bush Administration. The facts are clear. There is an unprecedented rise in carbon dioxide that matches the increase in human activities that are known to release carbon dioxide. The chemistry of carbon dioxide's contribution to the greenhouse effect is not controversial. It is physics. The correlation between atmospheric carbon dioxide and temperature variations is extremely close. The fact that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps heat is about as solid as the fact that if you drop a lead weight it will fall down because of gravity. In a study conducted at UC San Diego (which, coincidentally, named it's first college after Roger Revelle) looking at 10 years of peer-reviewed scientific literature on global warming found that not one single peer-reviewed article found evidence against the basic model that global warming is happening and that it is cauesed by human activity. There is not one single article contradicting the global warming hypothesis. To quote Donald Kennedy, editor and chief of America's most prestigious scintific journal, Science, "Consensus as strong as the one that has developed around [global warming] is rare in science." According to my wife and all her colleagues I have talked to, 95% or more of people they consider genuine atmospheric scientists agree that global warming is happening and that humans are contributing to it. Some of those who are in that remaining 5% or fewer atmospheric scientists, many are funded by oil or coal interests. Some of those 5% or fewer have tried studying water vapor in the air (my wife's field) and claimed that the consensus global warming theory doesn't take into account water vapor and that it is water vapor, not carbon dioxide, that is at fault. The early version of this water vapor hypothesis was discredited by another scientist's study of...WATER VAPOR! A large amount of global warming science does indeed focus on water vapor and everything so far discovered supports the consensus global warming hypothesis, not the 5% or fewer view. The basic fact is that the consensus global warming theory, though it contains details that are hotly debated, is at root one of the most solid theories in atmospheric science.

Many so-called skeptics use complete bullshit to counter this solid theory. For example, claiming that just a short time ago atmospheric scientists claimed we were entering an ice age, so clearly these scientists don't know what they are talking about. That is false. A single scientists made that claim. He made it in the popular press, NOT in a scientific paper. And he retracted that claim a short time after with a clear explanation of what it was wrong. There is NO BASIS TO THIS CLAIM. But you still hear it used by right wing extremists to discredit legitimate science.

Then there is the claim, which came up just yesterday in a fatuous comment to one of my diaries, that "global warming is happening on Mars too so it can't be caused by humans." This is also wrong. From Real Climate:

Recently, there have been some suggestions that "global warming" has been observed on Mars...These are based on observations of regional change around the South Polar Cap, but seem to have been extended into a "global" change, and used by some to infer an external common mechanism for global warming on Earth and Mars...But this is incorrect reasoning and based on faulty understanding of the data...

So what is causing Martian climate change now? Mars has a relatively well studied climate, going back to measurements made by Viking, and continued with the current series of orbiters, such as the Mars Global Surveyor. Complementing the measurements, NASA has a Mars General Circulation Model (GCM) based at NASA Ames. (NB. There is a good "general reader" review of modeling the Martian atmosphere by Stephen R Lewis in Astronomy and Geophysics, volume 44 issue 4. pages 6-14.)

Globally, the mean temperature of the Martian atmosphere is particularly sensitive to the strength and duration of hemispheric dust storms...Large scale dust storms change the atmospheric opacity and convection; as always when comparing mean temperatures, the altitude at which the measurement is made matters, but to the extent it is sensible to speak of a mean temperature for Mars, the evidence is for significant cooling from the 1970's, when Viking made measurements, compared to current temperatures. However, this is essentially due to large scale dust storms that were common back then, compared to a lower level of storminess now. The mean temperature on Mars, averaged over the Martian year can change by many degrees from year to year, depending on how active large scale dust storms are.

In 2001, Malin et al published a short article in Science (subscription required) discussing MGS data showing a rapid shrinkage of the South Polar Cap. Recently, the MGS team had a press release discussing more recent data showing the trend had continued. MGS 2001 press release MGS 2005 press release. The shrinkage of the Martian South Polar Cap is almost certainly a regional climate change, and is not any indication of global warming trends in the Martian atmosphere. Colaprete et al in Nature 2005 (subscription required) showed, using the Mars GCM, that the south polar climate is unstable due to the peculiar topography near the pole, and the current configuration is on the instability border; we therefore expect to see rapid changes in ice cover as the regional climate transits between the unstable states.

Thus inferring global warming from a 3 Martian year regional trend is unwarranted. The observed regional changes in south polar ice cover are almost certainly due to a regional climate transition, not a global phenomenon, and are demonstrably unrelated to external forcing. There is a slight irony in people rushing to claim that the glacier changes on Mars are a sure sign of global warming, while not being swayed by the much more persuasive analogous phenomena here on Earth...

So, the "ice age" claim and the "Mars too" claims are both bogus. Anyone who uses them either is listening to the right wing Denial Lobby or is part of the right wing Denial Lobby. The "it's all water vapor" hypothesis is a more genuine scientific theory, but it is one that has largely been discredited. A revamped version has come up recently, but the evidence supporting the consensus theory is far, far greater than the slim evidence for the water vapor only theory. Which is why there is such an overwhelming consensus among scientists.


There are many technologies that we can switch to right now that are economically sound ideas. Some of this technology has been around for at least a decade. What is lacking is not things we can do in an economically sound way, it is the political leadership that has been lacking. Keep in mind in any discussion of this issue that the oil and coal industries receive massive government subsidies to artificially keep prices down. Our taxes go to these industries even as oil companies are making record profits and gas prices are near record highs.

Let's look at a few examples. People were telling me wind power is a not ready for prime time energy source. This is false. Ten years ago (September 2005) there was a Scientific American article I frequently quote that outlined how using wind generation alone, America's Great Plains states could be energy exporters. That was with the technology back then. Have we lost technology since then? With today's wind turbines, I am told that in Iowa farmers are dedicating more and more of their land to wind power generation because they can make more money that way than by growing crops. Farmers are IMPROVING their economic situation by adding wind generation to their efforts. By 2008, if current trends continue, Denmark will get 25% of it's power from wind. Thanks to demand, Denmark's largest export is now wind with Vestas being the world's largest manufacturer of wind turbines. America has far more regions where wind power is viable than Denmark does. Yet we can't do better? I think we can! If the government spent as much effort helping the wind industry as it does helping oil and coal interests, wind would be the clear option. Hydroelectric is already being used and geothermal is an economically viable resource where it is available. I have personally made money investing in a geothermal company.

The technology is now. Biofuels has some problems, but is pretty much viable. Solar is still developing, but is still economically viable in some contexts. And what is left out by most who think alternative energy isn't economically sound is the fact that when we switch to alternative energy resources we are creating American jobs and boosting America's income.


Our society is very resistent to new ideas. But, when there has been the leadership to change, we have changed. A prime example is, of course, the Apollo program where a leader envisioned something and the government pushed for it and it was achieved. More recently, the human genome project is another example of political will leading to a very real accomplishment that was impossible at the time it was envisioned. Then let's look at a real case scenario that is analagous to the global warming issue.

I remember when the original theory about CFCs destroying the ozone was first put forward by scientists (leading eventually to a Nobel Prize). The science was sound and predicted that a hole in the ozone hole would form. Even once this hole began to form, the same kinds of denials were heard from the right wing and from industry, claiming it was all just environmetnalist alarm and a big scam. Many of the same people who denied ozone hole science are now global warming deniers. People gave the same kinds of arguments against it: it isn't happening; it isn't caused by humans; international treaties don't work so why bother trying it; etc.

But, a BIPARTISAN group in America worked together and worked with an international group leading to the Montreal Protocols. That international treaty led to the phasing out of CFCs. The political will was there to listen to the science, not the lobbyists, and to do the right thing without economic disaster. This should serve as a model for international cooperation on global warming as well as national bipartisanship on environmental issues. What has changed is the nature of the Republican Party. It has become a far more fanatical right wing organization with far less contact with reality than it was back then. But that can change! We have to push for it to change by lobbying local, state and national politicians to take action on global warming.

What can government do? How about municipalities making compact fluorescent bulbs free from sales tax to bring the initial purchase cost down? How about tax incentives for people to switch to green energy (an option currently available in many places but at a slightly higher cost)? How about increasing incentives for homes and businesses to reduce energy use or increase use of green energy? How about better subsidies for alternative energy programs? Remember that coal and oil are subsidized to keep them viable. Let's create American jobs by doing the same for wind, geothermal, solar, etc. The Democratic Party is talking about some of these ideas already, now that they have Congress. Well, instead of saying we can't do it, encourage them and praise their efforts in the media! We can do it if we have the political leadership. Let's push for that political leadership within the Democratic Party and, while we're at it, among moderate Republicans. Moderate Republicans now have an incentive (their political survival!) to distance themselves from Bush. THIS issue (alternative energy) is a place where they are likely to be receptive. But if they don't hear from us, they are unlikely to do it. And if we can't find the will to push for it, who else is better able to muster the effort?

But we are only one nation...what difference will it make? A HUGE difference. We put out about 25% of carbon emissions. What we do will not only affect the whole equation, but will also provide the leadership for other nations to do the same. How much difference can we make? Well, the dramatic example I cited in yesterday's article is the Clean Air Act. When America first enacted the Clean Air Act, there was a visible reduction in the amount of pollution deposited in the Antarctic ice. All the way from America to Antarctica, the difference was noticable to the naked eye. THAT is what government legislation can do even if our nation is the only nation to act.


The worst arguement against acting is the "whatever, just don't inconvenience me." Well, there are two very dumb aspects to this view. First of all, there are simple things you can do that save you money or cost you litte while reducing the carbon emissions you cause. I will outline a couple below. Anyone who refuses to save themselves money while helping mitigate global warming seems doubly foolish to me. The more dramatically dumb thing about this view is simply the fact that these people are willing to sacrifice the lifestyle of our children for their own convenience. The selfishness of this view is astonishing, but I will admit that selfishness is human nature, often honed to near perfection by Americans, both liberal and conservative. If someone cares that much more about their own convenience that they will sacrifice their children's basic needs, I don't think I can reach them with any reasonable arguement.

But, let's focus on the easiest actions someone can take to be a part of the solution.

The absolute no-brainer are compact fluorescent light bulbs. These use 66% less energy than standard bulbs, last about 10 times longer, and fit practically any fixture depending on which style you buy. There are now compact fluorescent bulbs coiled into a shape and size that will fit exactly where any standard light bulb will fit. As I understand it, about the only thing you can't do with them is install them where you have a rheostat to vary the lighting. The single barrier to using them is the upfront cost. They cost more than a standard bulb to purchase. But, because they last 10 times longer, you don't have to replace them as often (thus they are more convenient and save money) AND the reduction in your energy bills alone more than make up for the higher increased cost. When my wife and I replaced the bulk of our lights with compact fluorescent bulbs, our energy bill went down by one third. That is a sustained savings year after year. There is no logical reason not to make the switch. But I say we make it even a better deal! Lobby your local politicians suggesting they make compact fluorescent bulbs exempt from sales tax. Lobby your Congress Critter asking that they subsidize compact fluorescent bulbs to bring down the price a little. Why not sweeten the deal even though they already are a great deal in the long run?

Another way everyone can save money with a simple action is by unplugging their appliances, particularly their TV, when they are off. OR, more conveniently, plugging them into a power strip that you switch off when not using an appliance. You can save on "stand by energy" this way. Sounds minor, but 25% of the energy used by a TV is when it is turned off. If you unplug it or turn off a powerstrip it is plugged into, you will save that 25% of its energy consumption. It is a slight inconvenience to remember to turn it off, but it will save you money with little effort on your part.

Other examples of things people can do that may have an initial cost but will save money in the long run are insulating your house more and buying more energy efficient appliances. In the long run, you save money doing these things and so I don't see any reason not to do them! But the up front cost of insulating, for example, is far higher than the up front cost of a compact fluorescent bulb, so it takes longer to see the benefit.

I have been part of the solution through investment as well. I have made money through investing in stocks in companies like United States Energy (USEY: geothermal) and even in Sunpower Corp (SPWR: solar). I also made money investing in a wind generation company's stock, but can't remember the name of the company. Of course stock investing isn't for everyone, but for those who are doing it, I can tell you you can make money investing in alternative energy.

Now, if you don't mind some minor cost to do some good with minimum inconvenience, here are some ideas. Again, those I list above will SAVE YOU MONEY. Those I list below will probably cost a little, but the cost is low and they are easy ways of easing your conscience.

Switch to green power. Yes...this option is available now, though it is often hard to know exactly how much of a difference you are making. But what you are really doing is creating a market for green power.

Many untility companies in the US allow you to choose your energy provider. In other words, you get the energy through one company, but the orginial generating company is chosen by you. This allows you to choose green energy as an option. Generally this option might cost slightly more, though when I first heard about how to do this in NYC the person who gave me the information actually saw his energy bills go down when he switched to green energy. My wife and I saw no difference when we switched. But in theory, the cost may be some pennies more a month higher than if you don't switch. But switching is very easy! So it is a simple way to be part of the solution.

If you are interested nationally about switching to green power, you can find out how here. If you live in NY you can switch directly through ConEd by going here. This is how my wife and I did it. It is easy and, again, we did not notice a difference in cost.

You can also push your business to switch to green energy. One example is my place of employment, New York University, is now buying enough greenpower credits to effectively purchase all its energy from wind. I can tell you that NYU is very cheap with its money. Believe me that if NYU can do it, even if just for the PR value, any large company can do it.

You can also drink the most liberal cup of coffee there is. It costs more than store bought crappy coffee, but my wife and I, both avid coffee drinkers, but 5 lb. bags of fair trade, organic, "no CO2" coffee for about $8/lb including shipping (about $7/lb before shipping). Dean's Beans "No CO2" coffee is a medium roast, fair trade, organic coffee from Peru where the company calculated the entire carbon load from planting to drinking, and neutralizes it with hardwood plantings at Pangoa, Peru. Dean's Beans is the best and cheapest fair trade and organic coffee I have been able to find, and their new "no CO2" coffee is an added plus. Check them out (including who certifies them as fair trade and organic) and please  give them a try. Ordering is easy and delivery is fast, often about a day or two even though I don't pay for fast delivery. As an aside, Dean's Bean's hot cocoa mix is WONDERFUL. Highly recommend it.

Finally, for those who want a very easy way to pay money to ease their guilt, there is a company called "Native Energy" that is a privately held Native American energy company that is building alternative generation plants on Native American land. They have a system (used by and publicized by Al Gore) where you can offset your carbon use (or part of it) by contributing to help build Native American and Alaskan Native wind turbines and new family dairy farm methane energy projects, adding renewable energy to the grid on your behalf, displacing power that otherwise has to come from burning fossil fuels.

So whether by convenience you mean saving money or you mean doing a simple, easy click of the mouse to pay some money to help solve the problem, YOU can be part of the solution. Between government action (which we need to lobby for) and your personal actions (which can be quite convenient), we can deal with this problem.

What does NOT help is denial, refusal to accept that solutions do exist right here and now, not pushing YOUR electeds to act for all our good, and not taking at least one or two simple actions to solve the problem.

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< So Much for Governing from the Middle... | Breaking News from the GAO: Abstinence-Only Programs Not Reviewed for Scientific Accuracy >
I suggest pessimism, not optomism that humans can achieve public policy benchmarks that will severely mitigate global warming.

What I am about to tell you is unbelievable, and therefore I ask that you google the phrase "abrupt climate change."

When the climate is forced, it doesn't respond smoothly and gradually.  Instead, proof in the form of ice core samples show that the climate at first resists changing, then abruptly changes to another stable state.

In other words, it is predictable that within a decade or two our climate will abruptly change from the mild Holocene of the last ten thousand years, to a hotter dryer climate that has resulted in mass extinctions many times in the past.

It is unreasonable to expect that mankind will so dramatically reduce their greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) fast enough to avoid abrupt climate change.  A fast growing population combined with growing per capita energy use, plus trillions of dollars in fossil fuel infrastruction means we are on track to double our CO2 emissions by 2050.

Furthermore, a warming earth means that carbon sinks will become carbon emitters bigtime.  In other words, it is predictable that soon the earth will start emitting far more GHG than humans, at the same time it is able to absorb less of mankind's CO2 pollution.  Nature absorbs about half of mankind's 8 billion tons of CO2 emitted each year.  By 2030 it is predicted that nature will only be able to absorb 2.7 billion tons a year.

The only solution for global warming is to remove the CO2 from the air after it has been emitted.  I suggest using genetic engineering to improve nature's ability to absorb CO2.  Perhaps seeding a GMO into the ocean.

by dobermanmacleod on 11/17/2006 07:49:47 AM EST

Well, I know something about both pessimism AND genetic engineering, being both a pessimist and a molecular biologist.

As to genetic engineering, at this point we do not have any molecular biological tools to help mitigate global warming. Doesn't mean you aren't right that such tools might be developed, but for now energy production is the number one thing we can work on, followed by reforestation and such.

As to pessimism, it is extremely easy to fall into despair when it comes to global warming, particularly since so many in government today seem so blindly stupid about it. But I have kids. If I fell into despair I could not face my kids. I HAVE to be optimistic and act as if we have many options and fight for every option. So I push for alternative energy (which is slowly moving forward) and tree planting and preservation of forests in particular. I desperately have to fight for my children's future, and these are the best ways I see to do so.

Alternative energy, conservation, preservation of existing forests and tree planting are what we all should be working on. If we aren't, we are still part of the problem. If we do, then we are part of the solution...we hope.

Read the Progressive Democrat

by mole333 on 11/17/2006 09:00:34 PM EST